The Prisoner of Second Avenue

An Old Vic production at the Vaudeville Theatre. 30 June – 25 September. £12 admission for under-25s.

The curtains rise to reveal Jeff Goldblum as Mel Edison, hunched over in his living room at 2.30am, rocking back and forth and muttering, ‘God… God… God…’ He is a man undergoing an existential crisis, bitterly unhappy and uncomfortable in the world, but unable to discover any one cause. His wife wakes and tries to comfort him, but his melancholy and his rage are unshakeable. He pounds on the wall of his neighbours, retches at the smell of garbage from sidewalk and is certain that he is about to lose his job in the midst of a recession. It might be advertised as a comedy, but in its opening moments, The Prisoner of Second Avenue seems nothing of the sort. Instead, it seems that the audience is in for an updated Ivanov for the 1970s, with laughs in short supply. Yet after a few minutes of Goldblum’s manic pacing back and forth and his unstoppably rapid delivery of lines, this revival of Neil Simon’s 1971 play reveals itself to be about as funny as theatre gets, albeit as black as funny gets.

The story revolves around a middle-aged couple, Mel and Edna Edison, who live alone in a New York apartment, their daughters having gone off to college. Their surname suggests a pioneering American spirit, but throughout the play, success or even optimism is nowhere to be found. Instead, they exist in a city suffering under prolonged garbage strikes, an unbearable heatwave and an enormous surge in criminal activity, and there seems to be no escape. As the recession puts their jobs in jeopardy and the water supply is sporadically shut off, innumerable and unrelenting waves of misery are lined up for the married pair. For these two New Yorkers, the American Dream has long gone stagnant.

In the midst of all this, Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl are thoroughly convincing as Mel and Edna, sharing a remarkable chemistry that hints at years of marriage. Although the production has been reviewed by the press to some extent as a vehicle for Jeff Goldblum, this is undeniably a two-hander; both actors bring their unique form of neurosis to their roles, and complement each other perfectly. And neurosis really does sum this production up. With Goldblum’s nervous breakdowns, whiney complaints about the air conditioning and loathing of his neighbours, the play would not look out of place in the oeuvre of Woody Allen – it shares much of his typical Jewish humour, and, more significantly, feels thoroughly rooted in time and place. From the set design to the sound effects, the old-school news reports to the understated costumes, the audience is transported straight to 1970s New York as it approaches bankruptcy. Yet while the period setting is subtle and convincing – due in large part to Terry Johnson’s excellent direction – its comedy, drama and underlying themes all have a startling contemporary relevance. Mel’s fear of unemployment is one that strikes a chord with audiences in 2010, and the trials and tribulations that he and Edna undergo are rather timeless, being struggles within themselves as a couple.

The play’s greatest emotional strength lies in its understated development of the relationship between husband and wife. They bicker, fall out and don’t even touch each other for much of the play, but the sense is always there that theirs is a genuine and loving relationship. It is a realistic, unsentimental but ultimately tender portrayal of two people struggling to stay afloat in the unforgiving currents of urban life. While its wit remains bitingly sharp and intelligent throughout, the masterstroke of this production is found in its understated moments of pathos, culminating in an unexpectedly poetic and beautiful final image. It is a shame this play won’t be running for much longer – it closes on 25 September – as this is an emotional, witty and timely revival. See it before it disappears too soon.

[Originally published by Cherwell Online, 30/07/2010:]

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